Oldie But Goodie: Douglas Engelbart

Now here’s something different for you guys. Have you ever looked at your computer and wondered how on earth people figured out to make this work? There are several things you could never live without today – the mouse, the mousepad, Hypertext, video conferencing, teleconferencing, word processing, dynamic file linking and online collaboration are all technologies we use daily, but don’t give a second thought as to where it came from. Or who designed it. You owe it all to one man, ladies and gentlemen:

Doctor Douglas Engelbart. Well , him and 17 others in his team, but mostly Doug.

A little back history first: Doug designed the precursors to everything you see today. Doug originally started his passion for science and technology while serving as a radio operator in WWII and came upon a essay written by Vannevar Bush. Bush, himself a huge name in the IT industry and in technology in general, wrote an essay titled, “As We May Think“, in which he lamented the use of computers as enablers of destruction. Without it, the atom bomb wouldn’t have been completed and thus cementing America in position as the dominant superpower for decades.

Bush, seated at his desk in 1940.

As We May Think” proposed that a new referencing system be used in computers with regard to document storage, to allow the free flow in information in computers for humans to use and benefit from. Not knowing it, Bush had stumbled upon the idea of file linking, and Hypertext in its very basic form. The essay inspired Englebart, and he returned to America to complete a degree in Electrical Engineering after his service. His degree allowed Engelbert to  work in various fields until 1951, when he decided to make the world a better place, and decided to start with computers. After many years of hard work, two degrees and one Ph.D later, Engelbart wrote and published a research agenda titled “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”  

His paper was to influence many of his later designs and products, and to this day is a major contributor to the way computers, graphical user interfaces and software databases are designed. First up was the mouse. The design of the modern mouse came courtesy of Engelbart, and was patented in 1970. His design featured a moving set of wheels at right angles to each other that fed information into a microprocessor built into a wooden housing. This was Engelbart’s first part of his multi-attack on creating a more intuitive way of working and understanding computers and the information that they held. The mouse was the first step, allowing for physical interaction  and cementing one of Engelbart’s core ideas, that a physical link would be more easily recognised and remembered by the brain. Also integrated into NLS at the same time were devices attached to the head and mose to track movement and interpret the results as information the computer could use. These, however, weren’t such a hit.

Clunky, but useable.

All the technologies you will see in the video below are part of a software-based, real-time collaboration system Engelbart and a team of researchers designed, called NLS (oN-Line System). NLS was a larger part of Doug’s plan to augment human knowledge using the software, and the movement tracking would have allowed a more physical link to exist between humans and computers. Essentially, he hit the idea of augmented reality before it became just another app.

Apple's "Lisa" mouse. Lisa was the name of the first Macintosh.


His design is considered the original “mouse”, as the cord trailed out the back part of the device, not up and to the front like modern designs. Coincidentally, the mouse you hold in your hands was actually re-developed and perfected by none other than Apple Inc. in 1984 which Steves Jobs and Wozniak both laboured over in a garage to go with their Macintosh. The mouse itself, and even the original design by Engelbart was dismissed by John Dvorak. Yes, the same American writer who  said that cable modems, the iPhone and iPad would not work (for an idiot, he’s earned an awful lot of money for being wrong).

But back to other things. Our man Doug worked behind the scenes to perfect a few other things before a momentous occasion that will forever be remembered in I.T. It is called “The Mother of All Demos”, and to this day its popularity, reaction to, and effects on, the I.T. industry have never been felt ever again. Since 1968, no-one has ever come away gob-smacked like the attendees of that demo did. The effects felt throughout the world in the years following were life-changing for many experts. Until his death, Steve Jobs tried to embody that same sense of wonder, creating what the media called his “Reality Distortion Field“. In reality, its the same as Engelbart’s keynote speech on December 9th, 1968.

The Fall Joint Computer Conference held in San Francisco that year changed everything about the way we think about, interact with and program for modern computers.  Doug took to the stage and sat behind a moving mini-podium in front of a  computer screen projection and  a TV camera. This was to be the first of his variety of technologies displayed that would influence later inventors – the camera recorded his face, the information on the computer screen, and simultaneously projected the image onto a white sheet behind Engelbart. With his microphone on, Doug began to run through his new computer collaboration system that would solve the problem of multiple filesharing and information gathering that was halting widespread use of computers in the government and public sectors.


While you can watch the first of the 9-part video saga in Youtube, notice the use of technologies that we’ve only recently embraced in the last few years. Engelbart uses a mouse and keyboard, but on his left is a set of macro keys. Those keys are only ever seen pre-1980 in this demo, and Engalbart uses them extensively to copy, cut, paste and delete text, select and de-select parts of text, and uses combinations of keys to do various things.

Right there, on his left.

He even had a mouse pad to allow the wheels to grip the surface more steadily. Look at his black mouse pointer – that’s actually a pointer that can be found within the customisation options for Windows 3.1 and all later versions which came decades later, which even includes the same mouse trail you see in the demo.

Its still the basic structure of Windows Explorer today.

Throughout the demos (which the technically-minded and interested will no doubt watch) we see a host of things that are commonality today. One of the bigger things that is shown are file lists with multiple levels. Engelbart expands and compresses file lists in part two of his demo, compressing the amount of information on the screen and offering a logical, intuitive way of sorting and looking through information. If for example you had a folder on cows, underneath that folder you would have respective folders for eating habits, mating, interbreeding, decomposition, diseases, edible parts and so on, with a third level in each respective folder for anything relating to those subjects that couldn’t be put in single text files. Does anyone recognise that setup? Its in every computer in the world today, and was once the primary method of interacting with the Windows Explorer in 3.1.

I’ll let the rest of what’s shown in the 90 minute demo for you guys to watch for yourselves. For the programmers reading this, it still astounds that this is what people were coming up with  when they had no resources, no forums to engage with, no Google, and certainly no manual that said where and where you could not program things, and why some things just wouldn’t work. The fact that the tech shown in this video still lands up in Windows 7 44 years later is a testament to the kind of insight Doug and his team had when working on NLS. In fact, had the project succeeded and not run out of funds, Doug would have been the next Bill Gates. Had he not signed over the rights for the invention, creation and rights to patent licensing of the mouse to the Stanford University, he would have been a very rich man indeed.

But that’s not what Doug was after, and not his only goal. Doug’s goal was ultimately to wake people up to the idea that computers could help them, enable them to complete tasks otherwise tedious or drawn out by hand or calculator. His invention of file linking allows the internet to function the way it does because you’d otherwise have to search for every single interesting thing someone told you to go look up – Doug’s method which we all use daily, enables you to merely click on the linked word and get transported to the destination of that link.

Furthermore, his goal to use computers to solve the world’s complex and urgent problems, I think, has been achieved. We no longer use snail mail to send important letters – we use e-mail. We don’t wait for months before we see our families or hear form them again – we use Skype. We’re no longer kids who just play outside in our backyard with the neighbors next door – we play in teams to unlock the next level in Battlefield 3. We use CAD to create things in 3D. We use statistics in Excel, then save them for your boss to later open on another computer miles away to see that his business is losing money in some areas. Government officials who can’t make meetings for the United Nations watch the gathering on their computer. If you’re on holiday, the boss contacts you on BBM, Whatsapp or e-mail to find out some important information he currently needs.

In many, many ways, Doug has changed our lives forever. Without his input, I wouldn’t have a job. Sure, if he hadn’t invented all this tech when he did, others would have surely come up with similar methods on their own.  I’m just not so sure it would have made the same impact.

And that’s why, boys and girls, Douglas Engelbart is today’s Oldie but Goodie.